Tips on how to get (good) live music in your swing dance scene

Getting good, live music into a swing dance scene can be a challenge, but worth the effort.  I think all swing dance scenes benefit from swing dance events with good, live music.  Good live music adds enthusiasm, excitement and energy!

Of course, the bigger metropolitan areas have (or should have) a huge advantage – size does matter in this instance.  For example, most swing dancers know that the Los Angeles, CA metro area (population about 12.9 million) and the Washington, DC metro area (population about 5.3 million) have regular opportunities for swing dancing to live music.  Of course, the larger size crowds that the event attracts helps pay for the bands at those venues.

But it’s possible for even smaller towns and areas to get good live music in their scene.  Mike & Mary live in Lexington, KY.  Lexington is the second-largest city in Kentucky, the 66th largest in the U.S., with a city population of about 279,000 and a metro area (basically Fayette and surrounding counties) population of about 447,000.  In spite of Lexington’s relatively small size, Mike & Mary/the Hepcats have been able to coordinate/assist with a good number of events with live music – good, high quality live music.  How do we manage that?

Below are some practical tips and some opinions based on our experiences.  A caveat:  none of these comments are meant to be critical of any particular scene or musical organization, but are intended to bring more awareness to what should be the cornerstone of swing dancing:  great music (both live and DJ)!

1.  Get to know the bands in your area and their repertoire.  One of the challenges of getting good live music for a swing dance is that there are not a lot of bands “out there” that know how to play for swing dancers.  The genre of music the Hepcats prefer for most of our live music events, 1930’s/40’s big band swing, is not particularily easy for musicians to play (that’s what numerous musicians have told me).  Scout out your area, talk to other swing dance organizers that book live music, and talk to band leaders and gauge their interest in playing for swing dancers.  Without being overbearing, you’ll need to make sure the band understands your expectations (more on that later).  Remember that for a lot of bands, their only experience in playing for “dancers” may have been at bars, concerts and music festivals.

2.  Jazz music is not necessarily good swing music.  I’ve had a number of jazz musicians tell me that just because their band plays good “jazz” music, swing dancers (and by swing dancers I mean Lindy Hop and Balboa dancers) should welcome the oppoortunity to dance to their music.  Sorry, but a lot of bands that play modern/contemporary “jazz” music just don’t play good swing music for swing dancers.

A band playing jazz music (or a band playing any kind of music) is not a juke box, able to play any type of genre of music on request.  For instance, you wouldn’t expect a band playing post World War II be-bop, or a band playing modern jazz to be able to play 1920’s Dixieland, 1930’s big band swing, or 1950’s rockbilly, etc….  In the same vein, jazz musicians shouldn’t expect Lindy Hoppers and Balboa dancers that thrive on 1930’s and 40’s big band music to dance to modern jazz.  In both repescts, it’s two different things.

3.  Don’t settle for mediocritythis is really important.  I’ve heard statements to the effect of “Even not so good live music is better than DJ music….”  I disagree.  For events with live music, events have to charge more for admission (vice an event with DJ music) in order to help pay for the band.  People will expect a better “product” for that event, which is to be expected.  If you sponsor an event with low quality music (or a band that plays a lot of “non swing” music), you’re going to turn people off, and the next time you have live music, even if you’ve upgraded the quality of the band, people will be leary of attending based on their past experience.

4.  Don’t be cheap.  If you want to hire a quality 16-17 piece big band, then hire the entire band.  Don’t ask the band to only bring “9-10” musicians.

5.  You get what you pay for.  This is tied in with #4 above.  When it comes to live music, you basically get what you pay for.  If you want a high quality band to play for a swing dance, that’s not going to be cheap.  Think about it – you’re not going to get a 16-17 piece big band with high quality musicians for $500 for the gig.  Bands with talented, highly trained musicians that can play authentic swing-era genre type arrangements will want to be (and should be) paid accordingly.  And if you pay the band appropriately, they should be willing to work with you to ensure the event is a success.

6.  So you have a band in mind, how do you communicate your expectations and ensure the music will appeal to swing dancers?

a. Coordinate the playlist with the band.  Assuming the band has enough good arrangements in their “book” (see info below), let the band know what songs you want them to play, how long the songs should be, and at what tempo.  In general you should ask the band to keep the songs at their original tempo and length (i.e. for length around 3 minutes or less).  Make sure they understand this is a swing dance!  I’ve done this for almost every band that has played for a Hepcats event and not a single band leader has objected to coordinating the playlist with me.  (And if a band leader did object to coordinating the playlist with me, then I wouldn’t hire that band.)

Quick story:  I once heard a 17 piece big band play “Zoot Suit Riot” and “Rock this Town” at an out-of-town Lindy Hop event (and they were not good songs to dance to).  I wondered why a 17 piece big band would even go to the trouble of obtaining those arrangements, take the time to rehearse them, etc.  So I asked the band leader, “Why did you play those arrangements?”  His answer was that he thought that’s what the dancers wanted; none of the event organizers had said anything to him about what to play, so he played what he thought people would want.  Ugh.

b. Find out what is in the band’s “book”.  Of course, to coordinate the playlist you’ll have to know what songs the band is capable of playing.  Most bands will have list of the songs they play that is in their “book”.  Most bands will not have a problem sharing that list with you.

So that’s it in a nutshell (I may expand on this subject later when I have more time).  I won’t go into the all the other things it takes to sponsor a swing dance with live music:  facility set up, band arrival and set-up/rehearsal, acoustics, etc.  If you’re interested in my views/experiences in those areas (or about this subject in general), feel free to contact me.

Thanks, and hope to see you at a future Hepcats event!